Interviewed By: Caela Collins
On Monday, January 30th The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey W. Mello. received a gift, an exterior portrait of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, from Cathedral artist, Deborah Simmons which led to us learning more about her story as an artist. Nothing prepared us for the eclectic interwoven aspects of visual arts, music education, and mathematics that cohesively danced to the heartbeat of a rich lineage. Nothing prepared us for the spiritual intergenerational journey that laid down the literal and metaphorical foundation for boatbuilding.
Deborah Simmons, originally from Greensboro, North Carolina is a current Christ Church Cathedral attendee and a Music Professor & Program Coordinator of the Music Studies Associated Degree program at Manchester Community College, soon to be CT State Community College-Manchester. Her notabilia does not end there, she’s also a digital artist that created works coined as “enhanced photographs,” a process in which she draws directly onto photographed images, similarly to the art piece gifted to our Bishop Diocesan, and you probably guessed it, she is also a boat builder!
What’s fascinating about Deborah Simmons is her deep intergenerational connection that spiritually led her to the craft of boat building:
“I have a genetic connection to boat builders and shantymen* (African sailors who sung using songs of hymnal & gospel descent to synchronize the pulling of their nets). My father, William Otto Simmons, Jr., was an electronic technician for the post office in Greensboro. Using the G.I. Bill from his time in the final years of WWII, he enrolled at North Carolina A & T University. His degree in commercial engineering gave him the skills in carpentry, plumbing and electrical. When I was little, he would teach me how to use tools to build things.”
How Simons arts discipline served as a basis for her boat building:
“My father was my first music teacher. By 4th grade he purchased a plastic guitar that could be tuned and a guitar method book. He had taken a semester of music theory in college. I flipped a coin to determine if my major would be visual art or music so I attended Winston-Salem State University and majored in music-bass clarinet with a minor in piano. In 1979, I received scholarships to attend Teachers College Columbia University. Completed degrees in Music Therapy Special Ed, Masters of Ed in Music Education, and a Doctorate in Music Education.”
Deborah Simmons first Episcopal experience via her Music Theory Special Ed Degree:
“I did an internship in Southbury, CT. My roommate, Patty Visk, was from Fishkill, NY. Visiting her folks on the weekends, we attended church. Her family were members of the Episcopal Church. I was raised United Church of Christ. Learning about her church was an eye opener.”
How her Doctorate in Music Education led to Visual Arts:
“To achieve the doctorate in music education, I had to leave the music therapy field and return to traditional teaching. It took my mother, grandmother and godmother passing in 1985-1986 to arrive at the conclusion that I had to leave NY. Meeting an administrator from the Hartford School system on one of the flights home led to my being employed at Fox Middle School. I work there for 7.5 years before taking the position at Manchester Community College. In 2016 we became an accredited institution by the National Association for Schools of Music. A benefit of working at the college is being able to take courses for free. Since my employ in 1995, I have taken numerous visual art courses. The courses included ceramics, 2/3D design and two studio drawing courses.”
Simmons calling to water:
“For many years I lived in the West End of Hartford. Teaching in Hartford and working in Manchester I had to cross the river every day. I began to see the river. Living so near the CT river, I begun to doing map art. I would take nautical charts of the river and coastline and enhanced them using inks and gold leaf. Around 2010, I was invited to exhibit in a group show with the theme about water. I had a crazy idea to build a boat and incorporate the river map design down the center console. The exhibition was cancelled due to a curatorial change with the gallery, but I learned how to build a boat.”
With no formal boat building knowledge, Deborah managed to pull from her childhood upbringing around music, art, and math that aided her in constructing her very first live boat, The Mende Libertè which translates to “Mende Free.” That same boat she crafted with her own hands won 1st place in 2015 for both ‘small craft dingy,’ which is maritime lingo for “small boat,” and judge’s choice award at the Mystic Seaport Exhibit.
“One thing lead to another and I decided to exhibit the boat at the 2015 Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport. I won 1st place judge’s choice and 1st place small craft dinghy. At the end of the weekend I was given a piece of Iroko wood used for the decking of the Amistad replica. I was told by Quentin Snediker, at the time Director of the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard.”
What’s interesting is that she was able to infuse actual wood from The Amistad, an infamous 1839 sailing vessel which illegally captured enslaved people who managed to regain control of the ship. A case well-known to the New Haven, CT community that shook the legal & diplomatic foundations of the nation’s government and brought the issue of enslavement to the forefront of American politics. Resulting in the Africans winning their freedom before the US Supreme court in 1841 and returned to their homeland.
54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” 58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
Deborah Simmons’ story is a powerful one within our Episcopal community and is a beautiful tale that exhibits the power of our intergenerational roots. We highlight her as Black History month comes to a close. She is a great addition to #EpiscopalBlackHistory and jumpstart to Women’s History Month. There are not many POC or women within the current maritime industry and Deborah’s story reminded us of the above bible verse: Although many were astounded by her wisdom & craftsmanship as a newcomer to boat building she leaned into her lineage and gained the nautical knowledge from her ancestors and carpentry skillset from her father. In response to those who may have questioned her belonging, Is she not a carpenter’s daughter?